The British Government has rejected a parliamentary committee proposal to come up with a timetable for talks that would give British residents in Bermuda the right to vote.
It said the Foreign Office did not plan to publish any such schedule but recognised the importance of a “reasonable qualifying process” to allow expatriates a place at the ballot box in overseas territories.
In its response to a House of Commons committee report, the British Government also said timetables would be set for the introduction of public company ownership registers and that it planned to hold workshops on their implementation “in the coming months”.
The Foreign Affairs Committee earlier this year recommended the launch of a consultation that would bring about a plan for a “pathway for all resident UK and British Overseas Territory citizens to be able to vote and hold elected office in territory”.
Its report, Global Britain and the Overseas Territories: Resetting the Relationship, added that the Foreign Office should set a timetable for the process and “set a deadline for phasing out discriminatory elements of belongership, or its territory-specific equivalents”.
The UK Government’s response was released by the committee today.
It said: “The UK Government understands the committee’s concerns and continues to impress upon OT governments the importance of allowing people who have made their permanent home in the territories the ability to vote and engage fully in the community, but recognises the desire of island communities to maintain their cohesion, hence the need for a reasonable qualifying process.
“We understand the OTs’ concerns, sensitivities and historical background on this issue.”
The response added: “In the spirit of a relationship based upon partnership, we will continue to support and encourage consistent and open political engagement on belongership and its territory-specific equivalents, while respecting the fact that immigration decisions are primarily a matter for OT governments.
“The FCO does not plan at a future date to publish such a timetable.”
The committee’s report pointed out that relationships between the UK and territories became strained in May last year when the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act was passed, setting out a deadline to produce a companies’ beneficial ownership register available to the public by the end of next year.
It added that the committee regretted “public registers may not be published before 2023” and recommended that the foreign secretary, along with overseas territories’ governments, should — before the summer recess — lay out a detailed timetable for the publication of registers in each jurisdiction.
In its reply, the British Government said it would prepare an Order in Council, which is effectively a decree from the UK, by the end of 2020 with overseas territories “expected to have fully functioning publicly accessible registers as soon as possible, and no later than the end of 2023”.
It added: “We are scoping the assistance the OTs will require and will be holding technical workshops and providing OTs with assistance over the coming months.
“This will support the OTs in developing publicly accessible registers.
“The FCO is not currently in a position to lay out detailed timetables for each territory and the timetable for implementing registers in each OT will differ depending on its fiscal position and business model.
“However, we will do so when this becomes clear.”
The committee’s report also said the British Government should set a date for all overseas territories to have legalised same-sex marriage.
Expressing its commitment to equal rights, the British Government added: “Our relationship with the overseas territories is based on partnership and therefore as policy on marriage law is an area of devolved responsibility it should be for the territories to decide and legislate on.
“As has been demonstrated by recent LGBT cases, the territories’ justice mechanisms and processes should be allowed the space to address these matters.”
The Court of Appeal in November dismissed the Bermuda Government’s claim that former Chief Justice Ian Kawaley was wrong to strike down parts of the Domestic Partnership Act, which banned same-sex marriage.
The Government later sought permission to take the case to the island’s final court of appeal, the Privy Council in London, which has not yet said if it would hear the matter.
Tom Tugendhat, the Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, said in response to the British Government’s feedback: “The concept of Global Britain, underpinned by shared values and commitments, lies at the heart of our foreign policy.
“All of the British overseas territories have their own constitutions but, rightly, share a bond with the UK and a pride in their deeply rooted British identities.”
He believed the report made a number of recommendations that strengthened the bonds but by rejecting certain proposals, the British Government risked “weakening messages of core sympathy for each other’s core values”.
Mr Tugendhat added: “We will hold the Government to their commitment to keep us informed of timetables relating to fully functioning publicly accessible registers for the OTs.”